Rhubarb more than a garden novelty

The cultivation of rhubarb dates back to about 2700 BC in China where it was grown for its medicinal purgative qualities.

Native to the Bosphorus, a windy strait that separates Europe and Asia, rhubarb has a long and interesting history of treating many aliments and was held in high regard through several Chinese dynasties.

It’s quite funny that rhubarb wasn’t popular in Britain until sugar became affordable in the 17th century. After that, rhubarb was so popular in the British Isles that it was comparable to the popularity of apple pie in the U.S.

In our part of the world, rhubarb has jumped from an old fashioned garden novelty to the forefront of the culinary world. It combines so well with berries, stone fruits and apples in pies and adds a delicious tang to sauces, preserves, muffins, chutneys and even cold soups. A cool-loving perennial vegetable, growing easily from rather large fleshy rhizomes, rhubarb (Rheum x hybridium) is hardy to zone 2, but in warmer zone 10 climates, it is treated like an annual.

Rhubarb stalks can be harvested over an eight- to 10-week period each spring, and then the plant should be allowed to recover and regrow over the summer and fall months. Rhubarb leaves are poisonous.

This is one of the most ideal times of the year to plant rhubarb, but look for the largest roots you can find with two or more eyes.  They are available now as bare root clumps, as well as freshly potted roots.  It’s important to get them planted as soon as possible because they need two years of growing time to become established enough to begin harvesting.

Rhubarb plants love a rich, well-drained soil. If you have established clumps, they are probably already showing growth in spite of the cold weather, and mulching existing stalks with well rotted manures gets them off to a great start. You can speed up your harvesting time by covering them with a deep clay pot flipped upside down.

For the first few seasons, harvest only for four to five weeks to make sure the young plants are not too stressed.

When you harvest rhubarb, make sure you pull out the stalk by grabbing the base of the stalk and tugging sideways and outward. If the stalk does not come cleanly out of the root, be sure to pull off the stumpy end left attached to the root in order to prevent decay. Rhubarb should never be harvested with a knife.

To keep rhubarb healthy and growing, never remove all its leaves, and stop harvesting when smaller stalks appear in late spring/early summer. When flowers appear in late spring, cut them out and feed the clump well to get it back into a vegetative state.

Rhubarb will perform okay in containers, but for long term enjoyment, it does far better when planted in the ground.  Rhubarb takes so little space and can add so much flavour to so many dishes, it’s well worth the time to pop in a few plants.

Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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